Paul Johnson’s Socrates

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In the Preface to Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche wondered whether the “wicked” Socrates did not, “deserve the hemlock,” did not “corrupt the loveliest product of antiquity, Plato.”


Paul Johnson’s insightful new book, Socrates, is devoted to the opposite proposition. Insofar as Plato recognized and recorded the wisdom of Socrates, he (Plato) did well. But when he called his own philosophy “Socratic,” he betrayed his master.

Yet both Nietzsche and Johnson agree that Plato’s “dogmatism” was ill placed. “Dogmatism” is Plato’s affirmation that truth does exist. This truth proposition Nietzsche simply called an “error.” Socrates only knew that he knew nothing, though this ignorance enabled him to point out that others did not know what they thought they knew.

In this short, readable book, Paul Johnson illuminates that about which he writes so well:  the meaning of Socrates. Johnson, in dealing with Socrates, knows that he touches the foundations of our civilization. That is the basic proposition:  It is never right to do wrong.

Johnson’s Socrates is a man of the people, a man who loved his city Athens, his wife Xantippe, and his many friends. He thought that people were basically good and, if they did not act that way, it was because they lacked education.

Almost the only fault that Johnson finds with Socrates was failure to deal with slavery. Even here he wonders whether some lost dialogue about it exists. Socrates also could not see much difference between men and women, except their relative physical strength. He was not a homosexual and made it clear that homosexual practice was not something good men indulged in.

Socrates lived a poor, disciplined life, but a life filled with conversation, good will, and, because of it, danger. Our first task, he believed, was to live virtuously. He was involved in many of the main events of his time, including his service in the Peloponnesian War. He met and discoursed with most of the leading orators, politicians, craftsmen, and thinkers in his day, as well as their anxious sons.

Besides Xantippe, only two women appear in the life of Socrates:  Diotima and Aspasia. But Johnson finds that their influence on Socrates was of a high order. Diotima taught Socrates what love was; Aspasia taught him about politics. Both were cultured, presumably lovely women, but Socrates’ relations with them seemed not to be erotic. Some say that Socrates had a first wife before Xantippe. The latter he married late in life. She bore him three sons.

Socrates held that the soul was immortal. He died after being convicted by a duly constituted Athenian court. The charge was double: not believing in the city’s gods and corrupting its youth. Johnson explains well both how these unfair accusations might seem plausible in the political situation of the city at the time and what Socrates had in mind in his understanding of the gods and the teaching of youth.

I liked this book, but I would be more enthusiastic about it had Johnson not gone out of his way to separate Socrates and Plato. What belongs to Socrates and what to Plato has been long controverted in academic readings of the Dialogues ever since they were written.

     Paul Johnson and his subject

Johnson holds that Socrates prepared the way for Paul’s teaching of Christ. No similarity between the deaths of Socrates and Christ is noted. Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI, with proper distinctions, point to this uncanny relationship. Johnson does not mention Glaucon’s description in Book II of the Republic of what would happen if the good man appeared in any existing city.

Johnson observed that Plato wanted to be a poet. Indeed, he was a poet. The Republic brought forth the charm needed to counteract the doings of the gods of Homer. It is best to look on Plato, not as subverting the philosophy of Socrates, but rather as providing the intellectual framework to complete its coherence. Johnson remarks that Socrates’ interest was people, while Plato, a don, was interested in ideas, as if both lived in different worlds.

The four eschatological myths in Plato complete the meaning of the actual people Socrates talked to in Athens. Moreover, without a final judgment no human life is complete. Plato was rightly worried about whether the world was created in injustice. It would be if, in the end, the unjust were praised and the just punished, as they often are in this world.

    The “wicked Socrates” did not corrupt this “loveliest product of antiquity.” Rather Plato, through his forms, made it possible to explain both the immortality of the soul and its continuation until it is restored in the resurrection, which concerns the real persons to whom Socrates spoke.

In no place in the ancient world are faith and reason closer together than in Plato’s completion of the conversations of Socrates. Plato was the faithful student of Socrates. Both pointed beyond themselves.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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